A Russian bomber recently carried out simulated cruise missile attacks on U.S. missile defenses in Asia, raising new questions about Moscow’s goal in future U.S.-Russian defense talks.
According to U.S. officials, a Russian Tu-22M Backfire bomber on Feb. 26 simulated firing air-launched cruise missiles at an Aegis ship deployed near Japan as part of U.S. missile defenses.
A second mock attack was conducted Feb. 27 against a ground-based missile defense site in Japan that officials did not identify further.
The Pentagon operates an X-band missile defense radar on the northern tip of Japan that is designed to monitor North Korean missile launches and transmit the data to missile-firing ships.
The bomber targeting comes as Russia is building up forces in the Pacific by modernizing submarines and building a spy ship specifically for intelligence-gathering against U.S. missile defenses.
Officials said it was not clear why the Russians conducted the practice strikes. However, the simulations may indicate Moscow has targeted its offensive ballistic missiles on Japan or U.S. military bases in the region.
U.S. missile defenses in Asia currently are at a heightened alert status as a result of tensions with North Korea. The communist state has threatened to conduct nuclear missile attacks on the United States and South Korea.
The incidents were detected by U.S. intelligence-gathering systems in the region and reported recently inside the Pentagon.
"As a matter of policy we do not comment on matters of intelligence," Lt. Col. Catherine Wilkinson said when asked about the Backfire bomber incident.
The Tu-22 bomber can carry up to three air-launched Kh-22 land attack cruise missiles. The bomber has a range of about 2,500 miles.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney said the Backfire targeting is troubling.
"Russia continues to conduct aggressive offensive missile training in the Pacific against U.S. and Allied Forces," McInerney said.
"We should understand that they look at ‘reset’ differently than we do," said the retired three-star general, who once commanded forces in Alaska. "They look at it as regaining their previous USSR position as a superpower while this administration is moving towards unilateral disarmament."
Eric Edelman, undersecretary of defense for policy during the George W. Bush administration, said it is difficult to assess why the Russians carried out the simulated strikes.
Edelman said practice runs may be "a demonstration of continued Russia opposition to and hyping of their animosity toward U.S. missile defense deployments globally."
"In the wake of the administration's ‘restructuring'’—read cancelation—of the SM-3 Block IIB which was supposedly the most neuralgic part for Moscow of the administration's [European Phased Adaptive Approach], the Russians are signaling that they are pocketing that concession and upping the ante in their opposition to missile defense—not just in Europe, but globally," Edelman told the Free Beacon in an email.
The Russians in the past have said their opposition to missile defense was not limited to Europe but included global missile defense deployments, he said. "This is just a symbol of how much that remains the case."
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Trey Obering, a former director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), said he regularly engaged the Russians as MDA director to seek cooperation on missile defense.
Later, after leaving government, he also took part in talks with Russians on missile defense cooperation.
"These efforts were met with Russian intransigence," he stated in an email.
The Russian opposition and now simulated attacks "means to me that there is no way the Russians want to cooperate on missile defense in any meaningful way," Obering said.
"We should not be conceding anything to the Russians," he added. "We should be pursuing our national security interests to defend this country and our allies."
The latest bomber encounter in Asia comes weeks before White House National Security adviser Thomas Donilon will visit Moscow in an effort to restart stalled missile defense talks with the Russians, who for the past four years have demanded legal restrictions on U.S. missile defenses in Europe.
Donilon is expected to seek a Russian return to the negotiating table after the Pentagon announced last month it is scrapping plans for a high-powered variant of the Navy’s SM-3 missile interceptor called the Block IIB. The cancellation was widely viewed as a concession to Russia. The Russians are opposed to placing interceptors in Europe and claim the missile will be used against Russian offensive missiles.
The bomber targeting of U.S. missile defenses also followed stepped up Russian bomber activities targeting other U.S. missile defense sites, including ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California. A large-scale Russian military exercise in the Arctic in June included flights by two Tu-95 Bear bombers that Russian military officials said had simulated attacks on U.S. missile defenses in Alaska.
Another pair of Tu-95s flew on July 4 the closest to the California coast that a Russian bomber had flown since the days of the Soviet Union, when strategic bomber flights near U.S. coasts were a routine feature of the Cold War.
Russian targeting of missile defenses also comes as Moscow’s GRU military intelligence announced April 1 that it would deploy a new reconnaissance ship in the Pacific to spy on U.S. missile defenses in Alaska and Hawaii.
The ship Yuri Ivanov will begin service next year, military sources told the state-run Izvestia news outlet.
One source said the main mission of the ship would be to monitor U.S. missile defense components in Alaska and Hawaii. The ship will be outfitted with electronic sensors that allow detection, interception, and analysis of signals from radar, weapons systems, and communications.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during a telephone call March 25 that Moscow wanted to resume missile defense talks.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement that Shoygu "expressed his desire to reconvene missile defense discussions with the U.S. at the deputy minister level."
"Secretary Hagel agreed and reiterated that this is an important part of U.S.-Russian relations," Little said. "He assured Minister Shoygu that these discussions would continue and be carried forward by under secretary of defense for policy Dr. Jim Miller."
Russian accounts of the conversation said the Russians plan to discuss the U.S. and NATO missile defense for Europe.
"We are very interested in how the situation surrounding the European missile-defense will develop, and our minister proposed reconvening regular consultations on this matter at deputy defense minister level: Anatoly Antonov from the Russian side and James Miller from the American side," Shoygu’s deputy Anatoly Antonov said, according to the RIA Novosti news agency.
U.S. plans for missile defenses in Europe include a phased approach that will employ a combination of ships and ground-based missile defenses designed mainly to counter attacks from Iranian missiles.
Hagel announced last month that the Pentagon would give up plans for the SM-3 IIB and instead increase the number of ground-based interceptors in California and Alaska from 30 to 44 over the next several years.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement after that announcement saying the United States continues to bolster global missile defenses, and therefore there is a need to work out "reliably legally binding guarantees" that missile defenses in Europe will not be targeted at Russian missiles.
Moscow has said the European defenses pose a threat to Russian security and late last year a Russian general threatened preemptive attacks on U.S. missile defense sites in any future crisis.
One venue for the missile defense talks could be the international conference on European security set to begin May 23 in Moscow, when Hagel could attend, according a Russian official quoted in press reports.
According to a Russian source quoted by Izvestya, the Russian Navy intelligence directorate urgently needs the spy ship because its surveillance vessels are old and outdated and ships can get closer to intelligence targets than aircraft. Ships also can be stationed for several days before being discovered.
"We now have practically no specialist reconnaissance ships left," the source said. "Those that we have were built in the 1970s and 1980s and are in poor condition. The Yuri Ivanov is a ship with a fundamentally new, highly productive reconnaissance complex."
The Ivanov is classified as a special communications ship 95 meters long with a displacement of 4,000 tons. It will be deployed with Russia’s Pacific fleet.
Moscow also announced Apr. 1 that it would modernize three Oscar II diesel powered, nuclear cruise missile submarines as part of a modernization of the Russian Pacific Fleet.
The submarines were built for attacking aircraft carrier strike groups and their weaponry included 24 SS-N-19 missiles and 28 torpedo tube launched missiles and torpedoes. A Russian military news outlet reported that the Oscar II modernization would include adding supersonic SS-N-26 anti-ship cruise missiles.
Former chief of the Russian General Staff Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky told a conference earlier this week in Moscow that the United States has not abandoned strategic plans for preventive nuclear strikes on both Russia and China. Baluyevsky said U.S. missile defenses are designed to prevent attacks after a U.S. first-strike nuclear attack, Interfax AVN reported April 2.
Former Russian Strategic Rocket Forces commander Col. Gen. Victor Yesin at the same conference said Russian offensive missiles would be able to overcome any U.S. missile defense system.
Yesin said any attempts to negotiate a new treaty with the United States like the now-abandoned 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty will fail.
"Whether we like it or not, the Americans will build their missile defense," Yesin said. "We will be unable to make them stop. Any attempt to force the Americans to abandon or at least sign a new missile defense treaty in the format of 1972 is a lost cause; that will never happen."